Corinthians | Human violence, and the foolishness of the cross

To those reeling from another week in the patriarchy, the cross offers only foolishness: but in that foolishness we find healing and companionship. (Listen.)

Like so many people, I feel overwhelmed by the events of the last few weeks. Parliament House is revealed to be a hotbed of sexual violence; and our Prime Minister cannot imagine it matters until, we are told, his wife prompts him to think of his own daughters. Then the attorney general is named in allegations of historic rape. Meanwhile, the head of the defence force instructs young cadets that they should not make themselves ‘prey’ to predators, and that they can do this by, among other things, avoiding being ‘attractive.’ All this while our training grounds for power, that is, Sydney’s private schools, are publicly revealed as manifestly unsafe places for young women.

In denominational news, many Baptists in NSW and the ACT have just effectively rejected the Baptist principles of freedom of conscience and congregational governance. They have passed a motion requiring every pastor and every church to affirm a statement of faith and values which rejects equal marriage — or they face expulsion.

In response to all these happenings, many women, LGBTI+ people, people who have been victims of violation and abuse, and the people who care about them, are simply reeling. I am simply reeling.

We here at Sanctuary rarely talk about the cross. Our focus tends to be on what happens next. We wonder: What does resurrection life look like? And how do we live into it here and now? Yet the Easter story is clear: the path to resurrection life leads through the cross. This week, as the patriarchal violence of the world is once again laid bare, focussing on the cross will be helpful.

So tonight, I will not avoid it. Instead, I will do what the world calls foolish, that is, I’ll preach; and I will engage in the particular foolishness of speaking of the cross. I do so knowing that my words are grossly inadequate. As I speak, I pray with the Psalmist: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord”—and, with the Apostle Paul, I hope that through the foolishness of my preaching and the ministrations of the Holy Spirit, “God will heal those who trust” (1 Cor. 1:21). So let’s turn our attention now to the cross.

In his letter to the cosmopolitan community of Corinth, Paul observes that, like preaching, the cross appears foolish to almost everyone. He notes that it is foolishness to Jews who expect a Davidic king before whom all nations will bow, and who seek miraculous demonstrations of God’s power. They cannot stomach a God who empties himself of power, and allows himself to be tortured and killed.

The cross is also foolishness to Greeks, who trust platonic ideals of truth and beauty, who seek brilliant oratory and winning arguments from the Andrew Bolts of the age, and who, like Mr Bolt, cannot stomach a God who speaks and works through the ugliness of the cross, or the despised and rejected of this world.

The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, that is, society as a whole, which sees death at the end of every road, which defers or denies death at every step, and which cannot stomach a God who willingly faces, accepts and experiences death.

And, I suggest, the cross is largely foolishness to us, because we have inherited these same values and expectations.

I suspect that, in each of us, there is still a little part which believes God should be strong, and which hopes that God will one day smite all our enemies: that is, those people who seek to diminish or destroy us or other vulnerable people, often in the strong God’s name. There is still a little part which conflates God’s truth with visible beauty, and which believes God works most powerfully through undamaged privileged eloquent people. And there is still a little part which sees death as the dominant force in this world, and the trappings of death—poverty, trauma, sickness, grief—as things to be avoided.

The cross shows us a god who looks weak; a god who looks ugly; a god who faces and embraces death. And so preaching the cross is foolishness itself, so foolish, in fact, that many churches have effectively rejected it and preach patriarchy and prosperity instead. What, then, is there for us in the cross? Why do we preach Christ crucified? Because there is nothing good about crucifixion.

With two thousand years’ distance, in an era when jewel-encrusted crosses are a fashion statement, it is easy to forget this. But to a first century person, crucifixion was horrific. Rotting crucified bodies lined the major highways, objects of terror and social control. The normal response was to turn away in such visceral disgust that a crucified victim was erased from history and memory; their name was never spoken again. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” cries Jesus: for the crucified one was abandoned to their agony and shame. By the world’s wisdom, to worship a crucified god is revolting, idiotic: so, again, why do we preach Christ crucified?

I believe it’s because, on the cross, we encounter a god who unmasks and absorbs human violence — and, let’s be clear, it was human violence which hung him there. This god does not react or retaliate, hurt or humiliate, condemn or kill; he does not allow violence to reshape him into its own image. Instead, this god is willing to go through the worst that humans can dish out: betrayal, persecution, mockery, violation, and torture. He is dragged outside the city gates, and there he is executed in an excruciatingly painful and humiliating way.

To the world, of course, everything about Jesus’ death trumpets that might is right. Domination is everything. Violence wins. Death is the end of the road. So to preach Christ crucified is foolishness, for there is nothing good about crucifixion — except, of course, to those of us who intimately know betrayal, persecution, mockery, violation, and torture.

There is nothing good about the cross — except, of course, to those of us who have been expelled from the city, from the denomination, from the church, from the family, from the relationship, and thrown onto the rubbish dump.

There is nothing good about the cross — except, of course, to those of us who know what it is to feel forsaken by the world, and by God.

Because the cross tells us that Jesus has gone before us. He knows our pain, and endures the worst with us: we are not alone in our suffering. And while the cross tells us that Jesus died, it also reminds us that violence and death are not the end — because our story ends, and begins, in what happens next. Our story ends, and begins, in resurrection.

Resurrection means that, on the cross, the old life, the life governed by violence and death, has been overcome. The image of a violent dominating wrathful god is revealed to be a human construction. This is not the god made known in Jesus Christ, and we do not need to be formed in its image; instead, Christ’s image, God’s true image, beckons us.

And when we look at Christ, we see that we are called not to domination, but to vulnerability; we are called to see God not just in the beautiful, but also in the despised; we are called not to self-preservation, but to self-giving love.

Let me be clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that being Christlike, that is, being vulnerable, allowing God to work through ugliness and pain, and engaging in self-giving love, means being passive or accepting abuse. Instead, for example, it might mean sharing our ugly truths; and we saw the healing gift of this when AOC and Grace Tame told their stories. By speaking out, even when it meant first fighting for the right to speak, each woman brought light to darkness and neutralized shame not only for themselves but for many who heard them. They showed how God’s wisdom and power work through stories the world seeks to erase, and through victims the world tends to despise.

This is the power of the cross, and the beauty of resurrection life. We do not need to become violent ourselves, or make ourselves in the image of a violent god; nor do we need to accept patriarchy’s terms and live in darkness, isolation or shame. Instead, in God’s wisdom we are called to band together and to minister to others out of our weakness, out of our wounds; we are called to offer and experience healing and wholeness through Christ’s new community of love.

So with those of us gathered here, I wonder: What are our wounds? What are our ugly stories? And how is God working through them?

And to every person reading this who knows violation and violence: Welcome to the margins! The crucified Christ and his new community are here for you.

To every person who has ever been mocked, persecuted, vilified, or rejected by family or church for being who they are or for standing with others who are shunned: Welcome to the margins! The crucified Christ and his new community are here for you.

To every person who is crushed by disconnection and loneliness, who feels forsaken, forgotten, friendless, who feels ashamed: Welcome to the margins! The crucified Christ and his new community are here for you.

To every person who is fed up with the patriarchy, sickened by the silencing, the name calling, the lack of empathy, the victim-blaming; to every person who cannot stomach a vengeful, violent, judgemental god or the people who make themselves in his image: Welcome to the margins! The crucified Christ and his new community are here for you.

And to our Baptist siblings across the border who face expulsion for affirming the dignity of love: Welcome to the margins! The crucified Christ and his new community are here for you.

Jesus Christ has gone before us, emptying himself of all power, spurning all defences, and accepting ridicule, rejection, forsakenness, even death. Through his crucifixion, he has unmasked human violence and revealed a different way, integrating heaven and earth, reconciling all things, and creating a new community which brings life and healing to those foolish enough to trust him.

And there’s a great crowd around him already, jesters and fools, misfits and outcasts, who have turned from the violence of the world and found ourselves embraced by the crucified Christ. We are wounded but healing, mocked but standing tall, rejected but here cherished and loved. And there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth, because that’s part of the grieving and part of the healing; but there’s also bread, wine and stories, and singing, and belonging, and wide slow rivers of joy.

So come now and join us, in this generous, spacious place outside the city gates, for we are gathering around Jesus, breathing out life, arms open wide towards you. Ω

A reflection on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 by Alison Sampson for Sanctuary, 7 March 2021 (Lent 3B) © Sanctuary 2021. Image credit: Manuel Asturias on Unsplash.


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